Postcard from Mexico City: Pausing for a playful food break at Mercado Roma

Close to 60 vendors are squeezed into the multi-story Mercado Roma, yet somehow I ended up with no photo overviews to show you even though we ducked in there several times. I tend not to enjoy the crowds crammed into narrow aisles of gourmet food halls, but, by visiting midday midweek, we found sitting at a counter very pleasant.

Serrano ham, Puebla-style cemitas, Spanish tapas, cheeses. One quickly senses this is a playground for chefs from established restaurants to experiment. So many places seductively beckoned us, but we stopped twice near the front at Saigon Cocina Vietnam. Large, plump shrimp punctuated with lemongrass atop rice starred in a made-to-order daily special. The flavorful scene-stealer proved to be the tuna banh mi spiked with the perfect amount of ginger sandwiched in fresh, firm French bread. A nice bottle of red can be procured from an outpost of Tinto Mx to accompany your meal.

The danger in eating at the counter at Saigon Cocina is posed by its neighbor, Que Bo, lurking behind your back. Chocolatero Jose Ramon Castillo tempts you with a display case full of gleaming Crayola-colored chocolates. On several occasions I managed to limit myself to letting just one melt in my mouth, slowly releasing layers of complex flavors. Also, tucked away in a back corner of Mercado Roma is a booth full of gourmet paletas, Bendita Paleta, that represent successful crossbreeding of traditional Mexican popsicles and Italian gelato waiting to be dipped in a chocolate of your choice.

On a Saturday when the market was hopping, we opted to seek refuge in the soothing, serene surroundings of a full-service restaurant upstairs, Seneri. Chef Fernando Martinez adds a contemporary twist to traditional foods from his home state of Michoacán, and he won us over immediately with an amuse-bouche of a rustic corn taquito topped with a sassy-looking fried charral, a crispy little whitefish we enjoyed mountains of served aboard one of the floating boat/restaurants on Lake Patzcuaro about 25 years ago. The crudo de pescado nestled in a foamy bed adorned with perky flowers was almost too pretty to eat, but we managed. Chicken de campo was enriched by a sauce of wild mushrooms. Avocado ice-cream served as a refreshing but not-too-sweet dessert. The entire meal was perfectly paced. We were never rushed, yet never left glancing toward the kitchen in search of the next course.

Mercado Roma might have won me over on the concept of gourmet food halls.

Leaving you with a glance at more of the chocolatero’s mouth-watering creations….

Postcard from Mexico City: Meanwhile, outside the Cathedral

There is a hubbub of bustling activity immediately outside the solemn confines of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Vendors hawking their wares. Dancers performing as though re-staking their ancestral Aztec claims to the land seized by the Spanish conquistadors.

And an abundance of shamans offering alternative services to the ceremonies performed by the Catholic priests inside. We are unsure how one chooses among the shamans, whose attire ranged from casual jeans and tennis shoes to more formal midriff-baring loin cloths, feathered headdresses and anklet rattles, huesos de fraile or bones of the friar, made from ayoyote seeds.

All of the purported intermediaries between the natural and spiritual worlds were equipped with similar tools of their trade, smoking copal incense and bundles of herbs. Their ancient cleansing rituals involved much circling of their clients with the incense and brushing with the fragrant herbs, the strong scents of both lingering on the newly purified for quite a while.

The shamans seem malplaced, their stations exuding bad feng shui. I fail to comprehend how anyone paying for the services could possibly slip into the proper receptive state amidst all the surrounding chaos.

Cross the street to the expansive Zocalo, and the level of noise and activity often is multiplied by special events. While we were there, the main plaza was occupied one week by a book festival, one week by Day of the Dead events and the final weekend by a youth concert with the loudest amplification I think I have ever endured. When they cranked up the music, we fled the plaza as quickly as possible. Surely the overwhelming noise forced even the most determined shamans to pack up their medicine bags to head for an alternate locale.

Postcard from Mexico City: The Lord of Poison and potent relics

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City also features a black statue of Christ, known there also as Lord of Poison which is a pretty interesting name for a Christ figure. This is the most venerated statue in the entire cathedral and… dates back to the 18th of August, 1602 when the Dominican Fathers came to Mexico with several Christ sculptures, all white.

Legend has it that this particular figure was installed in a small chapel in Tlanepantla where the regent archbishop prayed daily and at the end of a prayer, would kiss the feet of this statue. When his enemies saw what his routine was, they applied poison to the feet of the statue in the hopes that they could off him in this way after his next prayer. Alas, their cunning plan was foiled when the statue (faith, people, faith) shrank back from the archbishop’s approaching lips, thereby saving his life and providing for yet another biblical story. …the poison that had been applied by the evildoers… is what turned it black.

The story quickly got out and spread rapidly amongst the flock; the great back story and the fact that the chapel was not open to the public heightened the mystery and devotion to this black Christ. After being under wraps for many years (ie the marketing plan had worked and the product was ready) in 1935 the now heroic black Christ was moved from its private location to the Metropolitan Cathedral so as to be available for worship by all.

The Mystery of the Black Christ at Chumayel,” Lawsons Yucatan

The black figure of Jesus on the cross is somewhat of a newcomer to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Whether the version above or the story of the poison fed to Don Fermin by Don Ismael is preferred, the willingness of the figure to absorb the evil dark potion to spare the good man does make the Lord of Poison somewhat of a star attraction. The largest cathedral in the Americas actually is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If the halo-bearing statue below is of Mary, she appears quite shocked by her immaculately conceived swollen shape.

Construction of the first part of the church was begun under orders of Hernan Cortes in 1524. Original building materials were recycled from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of Huitzilopochtili, which stood on the site.

It would take more than a few Hail Marys to make a pass the entire length of the cathedral, as it measures the entire length of a football field, including the two endzones. There are two major gilded altars surrounded by 16 chapels. Ornate facades mark four major entrances to the cathedral. The main entrance was barred when we were there, and a crane appeared to facilitate an inspection or repair of any possible damage above incurred during the recent severe tremors.

Despite floods, fire, earthquakes and general sinking of the foundation, the church has remained steadfast in its determination to occupy the symbolic location in the heart of the city. As the huge capital city drained the water table, the cathedral continued to sink. Work to rectify that in the 1990s required extensive excavation. The successful stabilization project revealed ancient treasures, discussed here in a post-to-come.

The rather substantial first-class relics of San Vital housed in the glass case reside at the front of a gated chapel filled with portions of numerous saints. I am confused about whether these belonged at one time (until about the year of 304) to San Vitale, whose bones we first became acquainted with in the Cathedral of Bologna where they are enshrined combined with some of those of Saint Agricola. Or were they originally part of San Vitale who was buried alive, probably about the same time, for his faith in Ravenna, on the spot where a basilica now stands in his honor? Or someone entirely different?

Outside of the main chapel of reliquaries, unbeknownst to us, life-size wax statues of saints contain secret stashes of more human relics recently revealed via digital X-rays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Anyway, I’m totally uncertain of what causes this particular San Vital is in charge. But surely relics of this size are pretty potent, so go ahead. Pray for his help for anything.